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Mapping the spread of antigay ideology

Coming to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, always feels like traveling through time. The city can be spectacular, with its winding streets and mountains all around. But as soon as the sun disappears what begins to stand out is how dilapidated it is. In the past quarter century Tbilisi has endured the collapse of the Soviet Union, a civil war, and a revolution. What remains is a maze of broken sidewalks, haphazard residential structures that were probably conceived as temporary, and clotheslines that stretch between them: children’s clothes and men’s pants, and giant duvet covers, all of which have been laundered too many times.

A torn flag on the ground at a gay-rights demonstration in St. Petersburg, Russia, August 2, 2013 © Roma Yandolin/Getty Images

A torn flag on the ground at a gay-rights demonstration in St. Petersburg, Russia, August 2, 2013 © Roma Yandolin/Getty Images

At the heart of the city sits the Tbilisi Concert Hall, a 2,200-seat circular building with an air of faded modernist glory. Backstage, a giant collage of black-and-white photographs from the first rock festival ussr 1980, the title written in English in hand-cut letters. Downstairs is an American-style diner called Elvis, closed, perhaps to make way for the event taking place in the hall: the tenth World Congress of Families. The conference brings together delegates from more than fifty countries, all of whom are committed to the “defense of family, faith, and freedom.”

Their essential narrative is that the family — the “natural family,” that is, one that consists of one man and one woman and their biological children, the foundation of human civilization — is under attack from a trinity of threats: same-sex marriage, “gender ideology,” meaning the very idea that gender is a social construct, and contraception and abortion. All three are part of the “culture of death.” W.C.F. represents the “culture of life.”

A few minutes before the congress is scheduled to start, V.I.P.’s wearing laminated red badges are milling around near the stage. An extremely tall Orthodox priest is holding court in American English. This is Father Josiah Trenham from Riverside, California, the founder and director of Patristic Nectar Publications and a tireless campaigner against what he calls “L.G.B.T. ideology,” which is shorthand for acceptance of same-sex relationships. He is chatting with a burly blond man from Washington, D.C. This is Brian Brown, the head of the National Organization for Marriage and a father of eight, with a ninth on the way. N.O.M. is at work on a campaign against civil-union legislation in Bermuda.

This is another kind of time travel, but I do not realize that yet. I am here under the terms of a negotiated experiment in open-mindedness. I am queer, Jewish, anti-Putin, and a critic of marriage as an institution. I have emigrated from Russia to the United States twice, first to escape Soviet anti-Semitism and then to flee the Kremlin’s antigay policies. Right-wing family-values advocates have cited me by name as a representative of the enemy, indeed as someone who has personally set out to destroy the natural family.

It is May 2016. Virtually no one has heard the term “alt-right” and few people believe that Donald Trump could become the Republican nominee for president, win the election, and appoint a Cabinet of homophobes, racists, and antigovernment activists. At this gathering the news from the West is bad: next to me, Allan Carlson, the founder of W.C.F., is commiserating with the ultraconservative British barrister Paul Diamond about advances in transgender rights in America and the United Kingdom. The Americans, Brits, and Western Europeans in attendance are people living under siege. They’ve come to Georgia to rest their souls.

The Russians, Georgians, and Poles, on the other hand, exude confidence. Poland has successfully restricted access to abortion and has purged the word “gender” from its schools, and Russia and Georgia are winning their wars against queers. Levan Vasadze, the wealthy Georgian businessman who brought this year’s W.C.F. to Tbilisi, is a former rugby player. Alexey Komov, a Russian who represents W.C.F. at the United Nations, has the air of pampered health that usually comes only with money. Father Josiah does not wait for Komov to approach him but leaps up enthusiastically to greet Komov himself.

Komov is the first to recognize me. “Well, hello,” he says in Russian, sounding half-amused and half-angry. He is not happy to see me.

A few minutes later, the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, the Archbishop of Mtskheta-Tbilisi and Metropolitan Bishop of Abkhazia and Bichvinta, His Holiness and Beatitude Ilia II — the leader, in other words, of the 3 million Orthodox believers of Georgia — arrives. The hall, filled to capacity with W.C.F., including more than a thousand Georgians, comes to order as the patriarch delivers his greeting. “The family is the cornerstone of the prosperity of the state, of the strength of the state,” he says, leaning his tiny body on a very large gold-tipped walking stick. Five minutes later he’s finished and gone, as are most of the locals.

Larry Jacobs, the managing director of W.C.F., speaks next. He has been running around backstage for two hours, and it shows. The jacket of his baggy double-breasted suit is unbuttoned, his oversize red shirt has come untucked, and his tie, a darker shade of red, hangs too long. He references G. K. Chesterton on the family: “The only place where the good man can survive a bad government.” Jacobs is the one who made the controversial decision to let me in and even grant me a V.I.P. badge. There are Russian television correspondents, local Georgian reporters, and alt-right American bloggers here, but I am a representative of the ruling Western liberal establishment, and I can tell that Jacobs is flattered by my interest. There is something undeniably seductive about the civility with which he can open up this gathering for me. It’s as though the war is over and we are learning to live side by side.

A few hours later, I attend a lavish dinner for the hundred or so V.I.P.’s at a mountaintop restaurant where the Soviet nomenklatura used to dine. There are drinks on an endless terrace with views of the city and the mountains, and a classic seven-course Georgian meal. Jacobs has pleaded with the Russians to speak to me, but they ignore him. Allan Carlson, on the other hand, invites me to join him and his wife at their table.

Carlson, sixty-seven, is a slight man with close-cropped white hair and a mustache. He wears tweed jackets and chinos, and looks exactly like a cross between the two roles he has played all his life: professor and Midwestern farmer. Carlson has spent most of his professional life at the outer edge of the right-wing academy, working at think tanks and teaching at the very conservative Hillsdale College, in Michigan.

In the early 1990s, two sociologists from Moscow State University contacted Carlson and invited him to lecture. Back then, Russian scholars were trying to resuscitate the social sciences, scholarship which had been extinguished by seven decades of censorship, purges, and forced exile. Many looked to Western academics who drew on the work of exiled Russian intellectuals. Carlson’s research focused in part on the work of Pitirim Sorokin, who was exiled from Russia on Lenin’s personal orders and went on to found the sociology department at Harvard. His prolific writings included warnings about the descent of Western civilization into decadence, and Carlson connected with those doomsday predictions.

In 1995, Carlson took the sociologists up on their offer and traveled to Moscow. At the time, Eastern Europe was seized by demographic panic. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, a number of nation-states emerged or reemerged, and discovered just how small they were. In addition, many, including Russia itself, had seen their populations decline; Carlson and his Russian hosts were convinced that the root of the problem lay in the degradation of the natural family. W.C.F. was established to save that institution. The success of the new undertaking took Carlson by surprise: 700 people attended the first congress, in Prague in 1997.

For the next fifteen years, W.C.F. existed to put together the conference, which took place every couple of years. A small staff based in Illinois organized gatherings in Geneva, Madrid, and Warsaw. Yet even as ever-greater numbers of ultraconservative activists attended each gathering, Carlson’s worst fears were coming true: most Western European countries were recognizing same-sex unions. In Eastern Europe, things were looking bleak as well. Even Poland, a conservative, overwhelmingly Catholic country, was, as a European Union member, banning discrimination against L.G.B.T. people and allowing an annual Pride celebration in Warsaw.

It was because of Russia that W.C.F. became widely known in America. In 2012, Vladimir Putin, who had until then seemed largely unconcerned with his subjects’ personal lives, started talking about “traditional values.” In 2013, Russia passed a ban on “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations,” and the next year, one on adoption by same-sex couples. Traditional-values organizations with names like Sanctity of Motherhood and Family Policy popped up one after another. W.C.F. regulars were invited to speak at the Russian parliament.

When the Russian organizations parroted the rhetoric of W.C.F., it seemed as though American ultraconservatives who had been losing the battle at home had taken their talk to Russia. Soon after, the Southern Poverty Law Center classified W.C.F. as a hate group.

In reality, the relationship between W.C.F. and its Russian partners was one not of mentorship but of synergy. The Kremlin’s vague idea of “traditional values” cohered well with the Americans’; Russia’s antigay campaign raised the group’s profile around the world. But the alliance proved problematic. In 2014, W.C.F. was scheduled to convene in Moscow, at the Kremlin Palace of Congresses. Then Russia invaded Ukraine, and the United States and the European Union responded with sanctions. W.C.F. canceled the conference, seemingly unwilling to associate itself with the controversy. A different gathering was quickly organized in its place. Called the International Forum on the Large Family and the Future of Humanity, it was ostensibly a local, Russian initiative. It attracted the usual W.C.F. attendees, who said the usual things.

I had imagined the congress as a mirror image of an L.G.B.T. conference, with hundreds of activists from all over the world and panels that dragged on as each person recounted the experience of a battle that seemed unique but wasn’t. W.C.F. is different. For one thing, it’s much smaller. It seems that many of the local attendees are Vasadze’s employees — teachers and psychologists who work at a Christian day school he runs. The rest are foreigners who attend W.C.F. year after year. Their presentations are not, by and large, reports on their work. Instead, they bring thoughts and slogans that articulate the cause and inspire participants to fight. A procession of speakers warns of the looming “demographic winter.” “If things continue on the current course, sometime in this century we will run out of people,” Don Feder, a former Boston journalist who now works for W.C.F., declares. “Worldwide, fertility has fallen by more than fifty percent in less than fifty years,” he says. “We will have a smaller childbearing base in each generation, resulting in a downward spiral.”

This sounds ridiculous to me because humankind is obviously not dying out anytime soon; another speaker’s slides even show that the world’s population is growing, despite below-replacement-level birthrates in industrialized countries. I realize that to the conference attendees I might sound the way climate-change denialists sound to me: I claim that it’s “obvious” that the science presented is wrong. But something else is obvious to me, too: this vision of humanity’s impending death is fueled by racial panic.

There is even a difference in the language that the Westerners and Eastern Europeans use: the latter refer to race explicitly and use words like “perverts” where the Westerners say “L.G.B.T.” One delegate even apologizes to me for the “perverts” uttered onstage. And when the Western participants want to say “white people,” they just say “people.”

The best speech at the conference comes from an Eastern European: Vasadze. His is the story of a teenager who was in love with his future and with the West when the two seemed to come together. The Soviet empire was crumbling; he assumed that glory, happiness, and justice would follow. He came to the United States for an M.B.A. from Emory University. But somewhere along the way, his dream of Georgia’s glorious westernized future was derailed.

“Our ancient country,” he says, “is yet again torn in the battle of the superpowers.” He details what has happened to Georgia since the collapse of the Soviet Union: the civil war, the revolution, the Russian invasion, and the economically libertarian government that unleashed police terror. “You want us to talk about the family situation in Georgia?” he asks. “I just did! Almost no family was left untouched.”

Now Georgia has a new government, but it, too, is being held hostage by the West, which is seeking to spread its deathly values, Vasadze tells us. Georgia, he says, has been coerced into approving antidiscrimination legislation and introducing “gender-theory-based sexual education” in schools. It is also reforming its juvenile-justice system to give the government the right to remove children from families, he says. The state is paying for C-sections, leading hospitals to perform too many of them. Vasadze claims, falsely, that these procedures damage a woman’s future fertility.

“Instead of freedom expected from the West, we got jail, terror, perversion, and injustice,” he says. To conclude, he addresses Western liberals directly: “We admire you for your short-lived 200-year-long success,” he says. “Trust us, you are unconvincing when you think you can teach us morals.”

Vasadze’s speech goes beyond the widely accepted narrative that blames post-Soviet misery on poverty, social and economic instability, and a general sense of disorientation. Vasadze was never poor, or particularly unstable, or disoriented. His story cuts to the heart of something else: a thing we call freedom, and its progenitor, dignity. Hannah Arendt described life under totalitarianism as an existence in which the space between people disappeared and society turned to mush. In fact, people in the Soviet Union carved out breathing space, and talking and reading and fucking space, but it was always borrowed space, and it was forever getting smaller.

The rules were handed down by the state, which got its orders from Moscow. Now, Vasadze says, the rules are handed down by a state that gets marching orders from the West. The Soviet experience has taught people to distrust the state above all else, especially when it intervenes in their tiny, hard-won private space. Vasadze, like other speakers from this part of the world, never fails to mention child-protection services, a bogeyman that looms as large as the “homosexual lobby,” because they remove children from families for arbitrary reasons. By Western standards, child-protection services here are too often passive and indifferent, but the fear of the bureaucrat entering the home is palpable. I should know: I packed up my family and left Russia as soon as the state hinted at taking away my kids because I am queer.

Vasadze’s lament that the West is robbing Georgians of their freedom and dignity is greeted with a standing ovation from the couple of hundred Westerners in the audience. They are ambassadors from a traditional-values West, and they are united with their hosts in their opposition to a liberal future. They also feel that they have been silenced by political correctness, and had their national pride stolen. They are what the sociologist Arlie Hochschild has called “strangers in their own land.” In May 2016, they, unlike Vasadze, live in countries where they would be shamed for grieving their losses openly. So they grieve with Vasadze here in Tbilisi.

Komov, the fabulous Russian who represents W.C.F. at the U.N., gives a talk titled “The World’s Elites, Neo-Marxism, and Gender Ideology,” in which he argues that the notion of L.G.B.T. rights is a Bolshevik plot. In 1917, he tells us, the Russian Revolution changed world history by decriminalizing sodomy and introducing free love. Marx attacked the family, and then the Bolsheviks went after the church. Then Russia came to its senses, a little bit, and exiled Leon Trotsky as well as other radicals, who went on to found the Frankfurt School in the West, uniting their godless ideas with the sexualized notions promoted by Freud. Together, they decided to take over the world by turning the elites into “cultural Marxists,” who could use Hollywood and television to promote their ideas.

Komov speaks fluent English because he spent time as an undergraduate in New York and got his M.B.A. from the Open University, a British distance-learning school. The historical narrative he presents is part disinformation, part fantasy, and part revisionism. The Bolsheviks in fact tired of free love very quickly, and never really legalized sodomy; they just abolished all the laws of the empire, only to start restoring them quite soon. There is no evidence that members of the Frankfurt School ever had more than a passing acquaintance with Trotsky’s writing. But the story gives Komov a unifying narrative to share with his Western audience.

“There is hope,” he says. “There is a magic resurrection.” He says 30,000 churches have been reopened or rebuilt in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Now the West is under attack from a new totalitarianism, and Eastern bloc countries should return the favor and help to liberate them.

In May 2016, this earnest description of a Commie-pinko-Jewish plot sounds safely nutty. I cannot imagine that conspiracy theories and fake news are soon to dominate American political conversation. I cannot imagine that the two presidential candidates will have a televised spat about which one of them is the Kremlin’s puppet.

The next day of the congress falls on May 17, which His Holiness has declared Family Strength and Honor of Parents Day. A march begins near the hotel where the day’s sessions have been convening, and winds through Tbilisi. We stand behind a World Congress of Families banner for a while. The day feels thin, tedious, hot. Then there is a signal that I miss and we begin walking. This is when I feel how it happens. Suddenly there are people everywhere: teenagers in track pants in front of me, women in kerchiefs to my right and to my left, men in business suits. The procession is at once a march and a race, and the crowd smells of perfume, sweat, and poverty. There is chanting, and a purpose, and the sun. If I wanted to belong, I probably could.

Vasadze is leading the W.C.F. contingent, and as we walk I ask him about a term that has been used a lot here: “totalitarianism.” A Spanish family-values advocate defined it as “total exclusion of religion and religious thought.” Another speaker quoted Arendt’s description of totalitarian ideology as a construction impervious to reason and claimed that “the E.U. imposes everywhere it can the L.G.B.T. ideologies, which include consumerism and gay rights.” Really? I ask Vasadze. Queer totalitarianism?

“Is it so hard to imagine that people with certain ideas want to achieve world domination?” Vasadze responds. No, that’s not hard to imagine; it happens all the time.

Vasadze is Georgia’s family-values superhero. Not only is he one of the wealthiest men in the country but he funds his own school and rugby team and, it appears, much of W.C.F. gathering. Most Georgians, though, had not heard of him before May 17, 2013.

May 17 is International Day Against Homophobia, which commemorates the day, in 1990, when the World Health Organization dropped homosexuality from its list of diseases. In some countries, IDAHO serves as a milder alternative to Pride. Georgia tried IDAHO cautiously, starting in 2011, when a few dozen people gathered and floated candles on the river. In 2012, more activists attended and were harassed. In 2013, they were attacked by a mob that overpowered the police. In search of shelter, one group of participants ran into a police bus, and the police drove them out of town and then transported them back into the city one by one. Another group was trapped in a yellow minibus. The mob attacked, rocking the bus and managing to shatter the windows and injure those inside before the police were able to intervene. “It was the biggest shock of my life,” Magda Kalandadze, a thirty-year-old L.G.B.T. activist, recalled. “I saw ten thousand people who wanted to kill me.”

When the pogrom was finally over, the attackers held a celebration at the giant Cathedral of the Holy Trinity. That was when Vasadze emerged as a public figure — he was suddenly everywhere, by the patriarch’s side and on television, announcing new efforts, including the formation of the Demographic Renaissance Foundation, which aims to stem the decline in the country’s population. For the L.G.B.T. activists, he personifies the 2013 attacks. When he talks about May 17, he describes it as the day when Georgians pushed back against the agents of the Western “totalitarian dictatorship of liberalism.” When he recalled the day from the stage, he added, “Fortunately, no one was killed.”

W.C.F. claims to disavow violence, but the rhetoric in Tbilisi suggests some disagreements on the subject of killing. In a speech, Father Josiah quotes from Islamic scripture: “Kill the one who does it and the one to whom it is done.” This is not exactly a call to action — he is merely making the (dubious) point that the sacred texts of all the Abrahamic religions and Buddhism contain prohibitions against homosexuality. But people clap. Not a lot of people — from the sound of it, more than twenty and fewer than a hundred.

Igor Beloborodov, a red-bearded Russian sociologist, walks alongside a Georgian man in a black suit. I tune in mid-conversation, but it is clear that they are talking about the gays who are celebrating IDAHO elsewhere in the world.

“None of that is allowed in Russia anymore,” brags Beloborodov.

“They’d get fined right away? Twenty thousand?”

“Try fifty.”

“That much, for an individual?”


“And a foreigner can get deported?”

“Not ‘can.’ Will get deported. That’s if they are not being charged with anything else. Otherwise, it’s jail.”

In fact, the most noticeable consequence of the Russian ban on “gay propaganda” has been not legal enforcement — though there have been some fines imposed, and at least one group of foreigners was indeed arrested — but a catastrophic increase in antigay violence. The Georgian man, though, is clearly impressed.

We walk in scorching heat down one avenue, then another, and then up a steep hill along what Georgians call the Weeping Mountain, a rock that is constantly seeping water. “It is crying for our sins,” says Vasadze. After walking for three miles, the marchers reach the top of the hill, and into view comes a giant, glorious, almost luminescent billboard, in bright teal against a rich black background, advertising a concert by the British pop star Robbie Williams.

We round the corner and walk another ten minutes to the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, where the patriarch holds a service. By the end of the march, at least one person, an older American woman, has suffered heatstroke.

I leave and go to the other side of town, to the courthouse where ten activists are about to face a judge. They were detained at four in the morning for attempting to stencil love is equal and fuck homophobia and transphobia in a couple of places, including the fence around the patriarchate. Such are the tactics of the L.G.B.T. movement in Georgia now that it finds itself going underground.

The activists are released after several hours in detention, their hearings postponed, and they join a group that has been waiting for them in front of the courthouse. When they talk to me, they are still trying to figure out what has happened to them: a few years ago they were coming out into a slowly Westernizing nation, and now they are pariahs in their own city. They are all leaving, says Ekaterine Aghdgomelashvili, who at forty-seven is the matriarch of the movement here. The young queers, especially the activists, are emigrating. “I understand,” she says. “They have their lives to live.”

I have left, too, and so have many of my friends. That’s the solution Beloborodov favors, as well: “It’s obvious that life is more comfortable for homosexuals in Holland or Germany,” he told a Russian site in 2014. “So we should just export them there en masse.”

The problem with the emigration solution is that it concerns actual people who have actual lives: homes, friends, parents, siblings, careers, and the Georgian mountains — or Russian forests, or Polish lakes — that they may not want to leave. “What about us?” says Aghdgomelashvili. “We are not a political actor. We are a rock they throw at each other.” Until they throw us over the fence.

In May 2016, her sentiment breaks my heart, because we are discussing attachment to home, the desire to stay in one’s own corner of the world, however hostile that corner may be. Not until a few months later does it occur to me that we might have been talking about having no place in the world where we can be safe.

Backstage at the concert hall, I interview Brian Brown, the head of the National Organization for Marriage. I ask him about Father Josiah’s Islamic reference, which seemed to suggest that people might want to kill my kind. “Father Josiah wouldn’t hurt a fly!” he assures me. Brown, raised as a Quaker, converted to Catholicism while doing his master’s degree at Oxford and became a full-time activist. He hates being lumped in with the thugs and the haters, and he goes to great lengths to project not only thoughtfulness but weakness.

“We are out-organized and outspent,” he says. Brown’s favorite example is the American L.G.B.T.-rights group Human Rights Campaign, which has about forty-five staff to W.C.F.’s four. In 2013, the H.R.C. announced that it was taking its work international. Brown sees this as a sign of the powerful gay lobby at work. So far, this international work has included numerous conferences, flying four people to Davos to speak on one panel in 2014 — I was one of the four — and issuing a report called Exposed: World Congress of Families, an American Organization Exporting Hate. I almost want to tell Brown that the natural family, globally, has nothing to worry about from the H.R.C.

At the time, I think of myself as a journalist interviewing a marginalized political activist for a mainstream American magazine. I think I have the power. But in a few weeks, Brown will become president of the World Congress of Families, and in November he will both rejoice in the election of Donald Trump and begin hounding him on Twitter, demanding that he take a stand against same-sex marriage. In May 2016, the Russians are leading an international charge, with Komov at the U.N. Soon, we will witness how easily the balance of power can shift. The American president-elect’s pick for U.N. ambassador will be among his first announcements; it will be the governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, who has no international experience but does have a track record of opposing both L.G.B.T. and reproductive rights. If she takes office, years of painstaking progress on L.G.B.T. rights at the U.N. will be reversed, with Russia needing to play but a small part.

But in May 2016 it is a theoretical, even condescending, question I ask Brown at the conclusion of our backstage interview: “Do you see a way for you and me to live in the same society?” I tell him I’ll forfeit the right to marriage — I am ambivalent about it anyway. But I do have children, and I will not let anyone take them away from me. To show that I have an open mind, I’ll even agree to put up with harassment in public restrooms, as I have for the past thirty-five years.

“If we can negotiate,” I ask, “is there a way that my family and yours can live in peace in the same society?”

“I don’t know.” Brown smiles — I think it’s a smile of awkwardness — and presses his hand to his knee, which has been shaking for the past ten minutes. “No.”

is the author, most recently, of The Future Is History (Riverhead), which will be published in the fall. Her most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “Northern Exposure,” appeared in the June 2014 issue.

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